I wonder how many of my American readers know about Literary Review, the superb monthly review of books that was born in Edinburgh in 1979 but that popped up on the world’s radar screen in a major way in the 1980s when Auberon Waugh became editor and it moved to London? When Bron died in January 2001, he was succeeded by his longtime assistant Nancy Sladek, who has ably maintained the journal tradition of wit, non-partisan intelligence, and refreshing breadth of interest. I have read it monthly for many years, always with profit, and am honored to be an occasional contributor to its pages.
The February issue carries my brief review of a new anthology of work by the great Czech novelist and commentator Karel Čapek (1890-1938) who is not as well known in the Anglophone world as he should be. “Čapek,” I note,
is a serious, but not a solemn, writer. The frequent comparisons with Huxley and Orwell are just, but finally unilluminating. Čapek is more worldly, less woolly, than Huxley, less angular than Orwell. He is (if you insist on a distinguished precursor) Kierkegaardian, not in his theology (he hadn’t any) but in his effort to reach people where they are, rather than demanding that they come to him. Hence his penchant for the demotic genre of daily journalism. The prevailing weather in Čapek’s work is sunny, but with bracing, sometimes eldritch, breezes. What shadows intrude are cast from outside. Čapek died on Christmas Day 1938, just as his beloved country, betrayed by Chamberlain, was being gobbled up by the Nazis. He cheated the Gestapo, which had named him public enemy number two. Josef was not so lucky. He was incarcerated in Dachau in 1939 and died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945.
Another taste, this one on Čapek’s masterly observations about language:
Čapek’s little disquisitions on words are among the most fetching things in this volume. ‘Mistakes, ignorance or lies’, he writes, ‘don’t start with an idea but with a word.’ Readers will find reflections on a thoughtful lexicon of words including ‘Novelty’, ‘Superstition’, ‘Style’, ‘Aim’, and ‘Principle’. The last, capek observes, is a ‘a mysterious and powerful word. You take a walk before dinner on principle; your aunt isn’t a theatre-goer on principle; your wise cousin avoids crowds on principle,’ etc. Thank goodness for principle! Just imagine how much less everyone would think of himself if things were otherwise:
If you took a walk out of habit or dyspepsia, if your aunt spent evenings at home out of indolence and parsimony, if your cousin were simply afraid of crowds … the world would undoubtedly be more colourful and language richer, but life would presumably lose out on moral commitment.
This volume includes an especially canny intervention about the word ‘Creative’, ‘a standard burnt offering’, Čapek notes, ‘of critical praise’. To call something or someone ‘creative’ is strong acclaim, but what does it really mean? ‘A great deal for God, but very little for man.’ Here’s that theme of reality again: in the end, Čapek argues, ‘artists are not creators of Americas, but discoverers and admirers of reality.’